Jack Willems: “Truck Driving Exploits”

Truck driving was my father’s default occupation, the job he turned to when other projects didn’t turn out. It was a default occupation because he was good at it, and though he disliked working for other people, he did enjoy driving and took pride in his skill at handling the big diesel rigs. Below are two stories Dad wrote about his truck driving adventures and sent to me in the year before his death. These were for the book about the family he knew I was writing, and he asked me to “fix them up.” The words are all his, the spelling and punctuation mine.

Note: In the story below, Dad describes one of his early jobs, a dangerous job taken out of desperation. The trip was not long in distance—only about thirty air miles, but much longer by road. The elevation of the small town of Reedley where he starts is only about 350 feet; the elevation of destination was 6,500 feet. Dad was starting at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas and driving up into Sequoia National Park where the General Grant Grove of trees is located. I’ve driven that, and even with modern roads it is steep. On the old, narrow roads it would have been a scary ride even in a car.

Memories of 1936

            “In 1936 I was a very young married man. Work was hard to get. My young bride, Agnes Young, and I were living in Joy Kliewer’s little house on the back of their lot in Reedley, California when the Fortier Trucking Company wanted to know if I wanted to haul a load to the powder house in General Grant Park. The cargo was 22 tons of dynamite. Catch 22. I must tell you of the size of that truck. It was 65 feet in length and had 22 wheels on the ground. The load was 22 tons, and it was an old Steward (?) model, gas and had 4 inch vacuum rag brakes! Very reluctantly I said, Yes. –I needed the work so bad!

“Leaving at midnight, I started up Boyd’s grade. Remember that old truck had bad brakes. I was in last gear and about a mile from the powder house when the truck gave out on me. What now? The truck was creeping back and a deep canyon behind me. Pitch dark and the brakes wouldn’t hold. Here I was heading for that black hole in the canyon [when] the second axle rolled to the top of a pile of asphalt and stopped. I sat there for about twenty minutes. I finally got that old truck started, and in the lowest gear, I crept to the powder house to unload that dynamite.

“Now, unloading that dynamite in the dark was another part of the story. When I arrived at the powder house I started to unload the front end of the truck first so I wouldn’t have to carry the boxes too far. That was a big mistake. When I got to the middle of the load, the front of the truck went up into the air. Now what? It was pitch dark and no one to help me, so I unload the truck first—with the wheels still up in the air, and then the trailer. It took me two hours. By that time I was ready to get out of there.  –When I got back I had no job.”

Note: The following story takes place after we moved to Stockton, California. The time seems to be the early 1940s. The ‘Grapevine’ Dad mentions is located on the pass over the mountains that separate the Central Valley from the coast. It is still there on I-5 between Bakersfield and the Los Angeles area. Back in the 1940s it was Highway 99, narrow and much steeper than it is now. Passing another vehicle, especially a big truck, was scary business.

Another Trucking Experience

“I had been hauling gasoline for about three months for a man in Stockton when the boss said to go to Long Beach and pick up a load of gasoline (a load was 74 hundred gallons to the high markers). The truck was new. It was a large Diamond T, with a model H Cummings engine in it, 22 wheels on the ground, but it still had four-inch rag brake lining.

“I went to Long Beach and loaded the gasoline. Coming back all went well until I came down the Grapevine, on this side going towards Bakersfield. I was rolling nicely, when, about half the way down, I tried the brakes.

“First the trailer brakes—there was none!

“Then the truck bakes—there was very little!

“The truck was gaining speed. As I passed Grapevine, my tuck had gained speed up to 90 miles an hour—and the trailer brakes were on fire!  –If you walk on top of a truck with shoe nails in your shoes you will start a fire, and my rig was on fire!

“I drove another five mile to Wheeler Station. The station was open, so I stopped and ran to the station to get a fire extinguisher. The station operator said, ‘No. I have lost too many that way. Let her burn. I don’t care.’

“What to do now! Here I was on fire, and he wouldn’t let me put it out!

“I got back into that truck and started towards Bakersfield.  Maybe I could crush the fire. By using the trailer brakes, in about three miles I did just that. When I arrived in Bakersfield and stopped for breakfast, I couldn’t eat. Even though the fire was out I was too shook up.”

                                                                                         Jacob (Jack) Willems

Jack Willems, Stockton, CA, 1952 Image (50)

My father, Jack Willems, Stockton, California, 1952


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